PHIPPSBURG — The southern Midcoast saw its first suspected rabid fox encounter just 21 days into the new year.

A grey fox tried to bite two children in their West Point Road backyard Thursday morning before it was shot by the children’s grandfather.

Gregory, 6, and Gary Wallace, 2, were jumping on their trampoline while waiting for the school bus when a fox entered their backyard.

“I was in the kitchen and my children had gone outside with my father-in-law when he came in and said there’s a fox running around,” said Melissa Wallace, Gregory and Gary’s mother. “The fox was biting dog toys in the yard and attacked a buoy we have hanging from a swing set. Then he ran under the trampoline and started nipping at the boys standing on the trampoline.”

While her children stood terrified on the trampoline, Wallace said her father-in-law, Gary Wallace, 70, ran to his house next door to get his shotgun while she stood, frozen, on her back porch.

“My mind was racing,” said Melissa Wallace. “It was very scary, especially when my boys weren’t within arm’s reach. I grabbed a lacrosse stick and headed down toward the fox, but then my father-in-law came out with his shotgun.”

Gary Wallace shot the fox when it stepped out from under the trampoline, leaving its brain intact so it can be tested for rabies.

Rabies is a viral disease transmitted primarily through bites and exposure to saliva or spinal fluid from an infected animal. It infects the nervous system of mammals, making the infected animal unusually aggressive. Vaccines are 100% effective in combating the disease in humans but rabies is fatal if left untreated.

According to Phippsburg animal control officer Norman Turner, the fox had porcupine quills around its mouth, a common indication the animal was rabid.

“It was definitely sick,” said Turner. “No fox in its right mind will go after a porcupine. The only animal that can take down a porcupine is a fisher, but a fox won’t even think about it.”

Phippsburg Police Chief Jon Skroski said the fox may be the same animal that fought with a dog in the yard of a Water Cove Road on Thursday morning.

“We don’t know for certain, but it’s most likely was the same fox,” he said.

Skroski said the dog didn’t appear to be injured after the tussle, but it was taken to the vet to receive a rabies booster shot.

Turner said this is the first sick animal he has dealt with this year, but he noticed a steep decline in animal calls when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maine in March 2020.

This is the first suspected rabid animal in Phippsburg this year. Three grey foxes tested positive for rabies last year, most recently in September, when a rabid fox attacked an elderly Phippsburg man in his backyard. The other two foxes tested positive in February and April, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to Shevenell Webb, a furbearer and small mammal biologist from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, the annual number of rabies cases has remained steady over the past three years. Last year, 71 animals in Maine tested positive for rabies. There were 89 cases in 2019 and 76 cases in 2018.

Webb said the department hasn’t seen a rise in rabies cases yet this winter.

No animals tested positive for rabies in Phippsburg in 2019, according to the Maine CDC, but neighboring Bath saw a surge of rabid foxes in 2019 and early 2020, with 18 people and pets attacked by rabid animals. The CDC confirmed 16 cases of rabies in Bath in 2019, compared to two in 2018 and none from 2015 to 2017.

The sudden rise in rabies cases in Bath in 2019 led that city to partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to trap species known to carry rabies, such as grey and red foxes, skunks and raccoons. The trapping program was designed to reduce the density of animal species that may carry rabies, lowering the chances of a human or pet coming into contact with a rabid animal.

The controversial program cost the city $26,611. Twenty-four raccoons and four skunks were caught in Bath and euthanized, but no foxes. None of the animals caught were carrying rabies.

In February 2020, Phippsburg selectmen decided against partnering with the US Department of Agriculture to set wildlife traps and instead offered to connect residents interested in trapping wildlife on their property with local fur trappers.

“Wildlife are generally shy and do not approach people or pets,” said Webb. “Seeing a fox in town during the day doesn’t necessarily mean it is sick or is reason to be alarmed. People should always observe wildlife from a safe distance and keep pets leashed to avoid negative interactions.”

Webb recommended covering garbage and compost bins, building a predator-proof pen to protect livestock, feeding pets inside and removing bird feeders to avoid attracting wildlife.

Turner said seeing wild animals in Phippsburg is normal, but he urged residents to be alert while outside and vaccine pets for rabies.

“We live here in the woods and more than likely, there are animals running around,” said Turner. “Any time you’re around wildlife, you have to be cautious. You don’t need to be afraid of an animal, but if it’s not acting like a normal critter, it could turn into an issue.”

Skroski said if anyone sees an animal acting unusual, do not approach it and call the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s dispatch line at (207) 443-8201.

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